Written by Erin Nulty
Children have a special vulnerability that require extraordinary means of protecting their rights and ensuring adequate protection against undue harm. Recent human rights violations have come to light within Australian youth detention centres, depriving children of the appropriate and necessary safeguards for a full and harmonious development. Australia wide, there are seventeen youth detention facilities, all of which are state controlled. A point of concern is the inconsistency in the regulation of juveniles, as each state has their own jurisdiction over young offenders. Explicit publication of the untenable abuses triggered a Royal Commission into the legislative detention and child protection regimes in the Northern Territory. The focus of the Royal Commission is the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.
Children at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre have been victims of institutionalisation. The Four Corners program that aired on 25 July 2016, documented graphic footage of child detainee’s exposure to violent breaches of their basic human rights. On her own initiative, the Children’s Commissioner of the Northern Territory, Colleen Gwynne, conducted her own investigation after she received a complaint about events that occurred in the Behavioural Management Unit (‘BMU’), during the period of August 2014. This particular unit is where children, as young as thirteen, are being held in solitary confinement. The isolated wing confines children to its concrete walls, depriving them of basic human necessities, including access to natural light and running water. The footage that was leaked to the media is directly supportive of the premise that the BMU is an environment for cruel and inhumane treatment.
A young boy, who has been identified as Dylan Voller experienced unconscionably high rates of physical abuse whilst detained at Don Dale. He was repeatedly held by his neck, forcibly stripped naked and bashed by youth justice officers. A particular incident that has come under scrutiny by the Royal Commission is the tear gassing incident that occurred on 21 August 2014. Six detainees were subject to this tortious act committed by the officers in charge.
Domestic legislation in this state has taken abuse further by implementing the legal use of mechanical restraints. The Youth Justice Act 2005 was amended in 2016 to allow the Commissioner to approve a mechanical device as an ‘approved restraint,’ for the purposes of restricting the movement of detainees. Mr Voller has been a victim of such restraint and was almost catatonic after being left shackled for approximately two hours. This is institutionalised brutality and is failing to assist with the rehabilitation of children, to avoid future incidences of criminal behaviour.
Mr Voller was subjected to reliving this inhuman treatment when he was required to give evidence at the Royal Commission. His legal team requested the court to allow for his enrolment into a diversionary program, known as BushMob, in Alice Springs. BushMob is the last remaining government funded diversionary program in the Northern Territory. This program is an alternative to detention that provides a more effective way of reintegrating juvenile offenders and reducing the rate of recidivism. Reintegration into society needs to be conducted in a civilised and structured manner, rather than confining children to concrete walls and essentially ‘locking them up and throwing away the key.’ Juvenile detainees see themselves as offenders and subsequently, learn further ‘tricks of the trade.’ The program promotes the education of life skills, self-respect and empathy with victims of crime. Teenage years are crucial for a child’s development. These years spent behind bars will only increase a child’s susceptibility to re-offending and intensify their disadvantage within the community. When delivering his verdict, Justice Barr was confident that the written case plan devised by the program leaders appears “very worthwhile” and it offers “Mr Voller an opportunity to demonstrate good behaviour in the community” with the required support and guidance necessary to aid a child’s rehabilitation.
The inquiry into Northern Territory detention centres has prompted other State Governments to conduct their own inquiries into the care and treatment of our young offenders. A youth detention centre in Werrington, NSW has come under intense scrutiny, after the Guardian Australia obtained a record of the Chisolm Behaviour Program (“CBP”). The program allowed for detainees to see only up to an hour and a half of daylight, and were required to be confined to box visits, making it impossible for the children to receive any love and affection from their family and friends. One detainee was assaulted and cuffed to his bed, whilst suffering from a serious injury to which he waited over three hours for medical assistance. Upon the cancellation of the program, it was not too long after that the Public Service Association urged for its reintroduction due to several assaults on staff members. It seems ironic that a notably barbaric program is urged to be reintroduced in order to satisfy the fear of workers but at the detriment of demoralising children at such an influential age.
It is duly noted that implementing diversionary programs is costly and often discouraged by victims of crime, however, early intervention is the key to re-educating and paving a new path for their adult years. A space to watch is the new budget reforms occurring in Victoria, which aims at allocating $6.7 million to early intervention programs and expanding the current successful Youth Justice Bail Supervision program. It is in the best interests of a young person to avoid further contact with the criminal justice system, and these programs offer young offenders the opportunity to amend their wrongdoings whilst remaining connected to their community and loved ones. One mistake should not define a person’s life and the community should not condemn those who make a wrong turn in life.